Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Revolution by Hannah Arendt

In a constellation that poses the threat of total annihilation through war against the hope for the emancipation of all mankind through revolution--leading one people after the other in swift succession "to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them"--no cause is left but the most ancient one of all, the one, in fact, that from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics, the cause of freedom versus tyranny.

Hannah Arendt starts her book discussing the dichotomy between mutually assured destruction (through nuclear fall out) on the one hand and liberty through revolution on the other.  This makes sense: she was writing in 1963 when the cold war promised a grave and threatening future.  But, the book is not about the cold war.

Rather, she moves backwards to compare two revolutions.  Those of you who know your Declaration of Independence well can probably guess one of the revolutions; the other is the French.  Why these?  She presents the two as distinct.  Thus, although the two revolutions are often understood as thematically similar, Arendt argues they are in fact very different.

And, although hailed as more important historically (I recall my sophomore year English teacher, teaching A Tale of Two Cities, exclaiming that We Think the American Revolution Was Important, But No, The French Revolution Is the One that Matters), Arendt argues that the French revolution was deficient, and should be seen as a revolution that failed.  This is because the French Revolution eventually abandoned its goal of maximizing liberty and instead focused on "social welfare."

In contrast, the American Revolution lead to the Constitution, which, for Arendt, creates a space of political engagement for every citizen.  Thus, the American Revolution was a success because the founding fathers focused on creating a political system which empowered every citizen; it is a system that values and accommodates collective action and political dialogue.

The problem with the French Revolution's turn to social welfare is that it fit into a Hegelian/Marxist political meta-narrative.  That is, the French Revolution set the precedent for revolutions that appealed to the concept of History as justification.  For Marx & Co. (e.g., Lenin, Mao), this provided a model for revolution at any cost, because History would vindicate the revolution--because History required the revolution.  Arendt's issue with this form of revolution is that it justifies atrocities under historical necessity.

In contrast, the American Revolution did not appeal to any kind of historical meta-narrative.  Rather, the framers were simply interested in liberating the people and ensuring they stayed free.

Arendt's writing can be dense.  I'll be honest: I'm afraid much of this book's meat was over my head.  However, as someone interested in the U.S. Constitution, Arendt offers a fascinating view of our history.  My intent is to come back to this book someday when I have more time for philosophical pursuits.  As an aside, I am obsessed with Arendt (this is the fourth book of hers I've read).  The Origins of Totalitarianism remains, for me, the most important analysis of World War II, fascism, and the holocaust.  Similarly, Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, is an extremely important book, both for its historical value and its musings on the existence of evil.  This book, too, stands out as an original and important work.

Recommended for anyone interested in political history, philosophy, and the American Revolution.

I'll close with one last quote from the book, not because it's particularly meaningful, but because it's hilarious:

To sound off with a cheerful "give me liberty or give me death" sort of argument in the face of the unprecedented and inconceivable potential destruction in nuclear warfare is not even hollow; it is downright ridiculous.


Christopher said...

Interesting stuff. I think I agree with her, based on your summary. Please hurry up and post your review of Never Let Me Go!

billy said...

What is Arendt's background? Do you think where she grew up would have an impact on her ideas? Also, you note that she says the American Revolution was successful because it empowered every citizen, but it very much didn't at the time. Does she mean that it was a success because it eventually did, thus giving the founders a pass on slavery, women's rights, etc.? Maybe I'll have to add it to my list, because the question of which revolution was more successful seems interesting.

R.M. Fiedler said...

And, Arendt acknowledged the failures of the American Revolution in immediate execution. Her response, though, would be that the American Revolution encapsulated the ideal of empowering every citizen, and the 200 years of history to follow were to play out making that ideal into a reality.

It's funny that you mention this point because it reminds me of something I did not discuss, which happens to be my favorite thing about Arendt: her method. She takes political systems...or political situations, and then reads them as though they were philosophical texts. Thus, for her, the failure to live up to its ideals is not interesting because it's not philosophically relevant. Insofar as the American Revolution represents a philosophy, its failure to live up to it is beside the point. I suspect this is because, for the field of philosophy, failure to live up to an ideal is almost assumed. That's to say, philosophies often serve as ideals we aspire to rather than realities we actually can live.

As to her method, she employs a similar tactic in Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. In both, she reads history and political ideology as though they represented philosophies, and then critiques those philosophies. Part of what's interesting about it is she's being creative two ways: reading the history philosophically requires a novel view of the history, critiquing it also requires a novel analysis.

Arendt's background: philosophy by training, was an up and comer in the philosophy world, living and working in Germany, when the Nazis took over. She was in Germany long enough for her mentor(?)/lover Heidegger to sell out Jewish people (Arendt = Jewish) and spent a brief amount of time arrested by the Gestapo and interned (I vaguely remember that this "internment" was at one of the less harsh concentration camps). She then escaped to New York and became a huge figure in U.S. philosophy departments.

Obviously, I love her.